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Applying Neuroscience to "Debug"​ Difficult Change

As change leaders, when it comes to difficult change, we try to do everything we can to prepare for smooth and seamless transformation and implementation. Studying Neuroscience suggests that there are a few more "bugs" we can clear out of the way if we want to spend a little more time up front to save a huge amount of time and needless complications down the road...

Imagine this, it's one of those big holidays and you are hosting family and friends for dinner. In this scenario you are the planning-controlling type and you really want everything to go smoothly. You plan out and tell your guests about your vision for the meal, you outline the courses and give everyone a detailed description of what to expect. You set up the table beautifully, leaving enough room for each guest to sit comfortably, taking into account potential dynamics, and trying to anticipate any possible hiccups. Everything is on task and beautiful while things are in planning. Literally five minutes after they arrive, people start doing what people do. The unpredictability of reality hits and your plan is no longer on track.

It is perhaps a bit of a stretch, but it might be helpful to think about traditional change models in the context of the "host" trying to do everything you can to allow dinner to run smoothly.

You do this by trying to:

  • Minimize discomfort, potential conflict, and potential blocks.

  • Increase effective communication and transparency.

  • Reduce potential threats.

  • Build trust.

  • Other efforts on your part as the "host" to ensure the needs of your guests are met and that everything is structured, planned, and delivered to ensure a seamless-feeling, enjoyable evening.

While there is a great deal of value in attentively doing everything we can to create the right "setting", sometimes the complexity of reality and a variety of seemingly unexpected actions and interactions turn a well planned process into difficult-to navigate, draining, slow going progress.

Is there anything else we can do to better prepare?

Not all change is equally difficult. Thanks to Neuroscience we understand that in some cases there are already strongly reinforced response patterns in place and when desired change conflicts with those preexisting patterns, the result is discomfort followed by resistance. The resistance is not merely to the specifics of the new, it will be there regardless because of the need to rewire the brain (even if people are highly motivated). Leaders who hope to acquire better communication skills for example, typically already have preexisting communication patterns and will experience resistance to change due to the need to rewire their brain, even if they are highly invested in improving.

  • One of the most ignored and critical things we need to pay attention to when it comes to change facilitation, is what people bring to the table.

  • The way people respond to change is equally about their deep emotional response patterns to discomfort, as individual human beings, as it is about the specific change they are asked to adopt.

  • We can spend a little more time upfront to prepare people to be "change-ready" and save a huge amount of time down the line.

  • We can methodically "debug" the blocking elements people bring to the table, quickly and effectively, one by one, before we start letting people "interact" with the change itself and all the blocking elements people bring with them start flying all over the place all at once.

How can Neuroscience help?

These apply to coaching and any other change management effort:

  1. Define Unlearning goals: If we only define what we need to acquire, we won't identify and hence not manage what we need to let go of to achieve desired outcomes. The front part of the Neuroscience-based Immunity to Change model is a fabulous resource for how to identify Unlearning goals.

  2. Use Axiology-based assessments: One of the things people bring to the table are deep emotional response patterns to discomfort. How people respond to discomfort in general will show up as resistance during change if it requires Unlearning. Use highly validated tools to identify up-front which ways people will resist change.

  3. Provide Change-Readiness Skills: We generally distinguish between performance-related skills and emotional skills. There is a subgroup of emotional skills that is specifically designed to target the way people respond to discomfort. Due to the fact preexisting response patterns to discomfort are typically deep and strongly reinforced, Change-Readiness Skills are designed specifically to be more "appealing" to the brain (they are choice-based and tied to a sense of empowerment). Train people to respond more effectively to discomfort before you start applying changes.

  4. Expose invisible resistance: In addition to the more obvious types of resistance, people are often unaware of a wide variety of resistance responses that are getting in their own way. Stress and anxiety associated with the discomfort of change (which you cannot fully eliminate) can lead to confusion, misinterpretations, and a variety of others "bugs". Get people to practice tiny change-related tasks to first expose these processing blind-spots, before you start applying the change itself. A good example of tiny tasks can be 5-10 minute assignments around goal-setting. Make sure these are assigned when people work independently (more like "homework" not during a workshop) to increase the chances of people not cooperating. You want invisible resistance to come out.

  5. Establish an effective accountability structure: When people struggle with overcoming their internal resistance (more than 87% of us do) someone in the right position should be ready to support people through the discomfort. Most leaders we work with could improve when it comes to holding people accountable in positive, healthy, effective ways. When dealing with difficult change, you don't want to have to start the conversation about accountability when the change is already underway.

If you've prepared the dinner table, have a wonderful plan for the evening, and already doing everything you can to include, engage, clarify, and communicate - take a moment to consider what your "guests" are bringing to the table.

While in a party, the best strategy might be to let go of your over-controlling approach and enjoy the ride, when it comes to facilitating change, ensuring you look into a few more bugs and get them out of the way before you start can make a critical difference.

Which of these can you better prepare for next time you provide coaching or guide a team/organization through difficult change?

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